What would you think about a worldview that could satisfy your deepest desires? Talbot philosophy professor Dr. Greg Ganssle talks with Sean and Scott about his new book, Our Deepest Desires: How the Christian Story Fulfills Human Aspirations. He summarizes our primary aspirations around relationships, goodness, beauty and freedom and shows how the Christian faith provides the resources for fulfillment in all these important areas.
More About Our Guest
Dr. Greg Ganssle is Professor of Philosophy at Talbot. Prior to coming to Talbot he served as co- founder and co-director of the Rivendell Institute at Yale University. He holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Syracuse University.
Sean McDowell: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Sean McDowell, professor of apologetics at Talbot School of Theology Biola University.
Scott Rae: And I'm your cohost, Scott Rae, dean of faculty and professor of Christian ethics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Sean McDowell: Today, we're here with a Talbot professor of philosophy, Greg Ganssle, who's written a fascinating book that we want to talk about called Our Deepest Desires. Greg, thanks for coming on, but let me start by asking you, tell us a little bit about your story. What led you just as a person, essentially, into caring about the life of the mind in Christian philosophy?
Greg Ganssle: Well, Sean, when I came to Christ as a high school student, it igniting some thinking in my life. I began to think about, more and more of my life Christianly, and as I went to university and was involved in a campus ministry, I was challenged by the questions my fellow students were asking. And that sent me to reading any books I could find to figure out how do you answer the questions that people are asking. And that quest began in the early 70s, and it's continued to this day.
Sean McDowell: You've written a book that I really love. I've told you this. Again, called Our Deepest Desires, but it's different than a typical apologetics book. In fact, you say you're not trying to show that Christianity is true, but kind of that people would want it to be true. Tell us the thinking behind the unique approach that this book takes.
Greg Ganssle: Well, I've noticed that, to be honest, people do not care if Christianity is true. Most people have the idea that, I'm pretty sure Christianity is false, and it's really good that it's false. And I wanted to challenge the second part of that. Nietzsche in one of his works makes the comment, "What is decisive against Christianity now is our taste, not our reason." And he's making the point, it was a point he was happy about, that we get people to reject Christianity by making it seem awful or horrible or unrealistic or out of touch. And I'm trying to counter that part of the kinds of questions people are asking.
Scott Rae: Greg, I found this to be a fascinating approach to articulating Christian faith. You say throughout the book, or the point of the book is our deepest desires as human beings are most at home in the Christian story as opposed to atheism. But just so we're clear, what would you say are the main elements of the Christian story?
Greg Ganssle: Yes. The way I like to think of it is this, the Christian story is the entire story of what God has done as revealed in the scriptures. It begins with creation, which reveals who God is and what God's plans are. And he creates human beings in his image in order that we can have relationship with him, and that we can be fruitful and multiply. And this is where the purpose of human life is grounded. And then, of course, human beings rebelled against God, and so all of the good things God put into our life are, to some degree, twisted or corrupted, and this is where sin enters the world. And of course, the central movement of the Christian story is that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. So the person and work of Christ to reaffirm our value in God's eyes, and then to pay the penalty for our sins, but the story doesn't end until God comes back into the scene in a dramatic way, to bring about the new heavens and the new Earth. To bring us to our final destination.
Greg Ganssle: So, the Christian view of history is that it begins with creation and it ends in the new heavens and the new Earth, when the kingdom of God has come in its fullness. One of the themes that runs through this is what does it mean to be human? Because it begins with us being created in the image of God, and then it ends with us still in the image of God, still human, enjoying him forever. And so that's our theme throughout the Christian story.
Scott Rae: So let me tackle the first part of it. You say our deepest desires are most at home in the Christian story, but what are our deepest desires, and how do they fit better within the Christian story?
Greg Ganssle: I think if we reflect on, it doesn't take very long to reflect on what people want most deeply. If we were to ask people what do they want, the first five answers are going the be pretty superficial. I want my student loans paid off. I want a job. I want a car that runs. But it doesn't take very long for people to realize what they want is a life that is meaningful and filled with rich relationships where they are known, loved, trusted. Where they experience the world with joy, and they encounter the beauty in the world. And reflecting on these things, I think they're very common among human beings.
Greg Ganssle: In fact, from believers to outright atheists, to people in between, everybody has a longing for relationships, for love, for beauty, for freedom, and meaning in life. So these are some of the desires, and of course, they make a lot of sense in a Christian story because God does have purpose for us. God made us for his own reasons. And so we flourish as we practice those reasons. And that has to do with how we live in relation to one another, how we live in relation to God, how we live in relation to the entire created world.
Sean McDowell: Greg, you spoke to this apologetics leadership group I was a part of a few months back, and you talked about how tragedies reveal that our deepest desire as human beings is for relationship. And that was like a game changing thought for me. Can you describe that, and then kind of describe how relationship is at the heart of the Christian world view in a way that it's not in other world views, like say, naturalism or pantheism?
Greg Ganssle: Well, it's again, it just takes reflecting on what happens to us in tragedies. Or what matters most to us when we're shaken up. And it turns out that what matters most is our relationships. In the book I tell the story of some of the things that happened on 9/11. One of which is when this plane, United Flight 93 was in Pennsylvania, and they knew they had been hijacked and the plane was going to be crashed, everybody ran to their cellphones to make one last phone call. And somebody in retrospect, said, "Nobody called the office to check on work." When you know that this is my time, you want to make connections with the people who matter. So that's kind of evidence that when we peel back our superficial layers, it's our relationships that determine the quality of life. This is where we actually invest the most.
Greg Ganssle: Now, there are going to be some people who are exceptions to this, but it's pretty strongly shared among human beings, and it's part of how we were made. So the question, when we talk about a world view, is where do human beings, and where do relationships fit in the worldview?
Greg Ganssle: So, for example, in an atheistic worldview, persons emerged by accident, very late in history, and there is no reason persons came, no purpose behind human being's existence, and so we're kind of against the grain of reality, is what human life is about.
Greg Ganssle: In a Christian picture of the world, personhood is there at the very beginning because God is personal. And when he makes us persons, he's making us persons on purpose. So the fact that we're human beings and we flourish in relationships fits into the very purpose of the universe. All of our humanness fits with the grain of reality.
Greg Ganssle: Other worldviews, you mentioned pantheism, the pantheistic worldview is going to be much closer to the atheistic worldview in terms of the place of personhood. It's going to, because human beings are not made by a personal agent for that agent's reasons. Somehow, we just are here. And even if we are some kind of spark of the divine, that doesn't actually ground meaning for our humanness.
Greg Ganssle: So that's kind of an overview of some of these things. Where does the existence in nature of human beings fit in the different worldviews? We care so deeply about all of the ingredients to our humanness, and yet, in many of the worldviews people have, those things don't fit. In the Christian worldview, it fits very well because God is personal. God created us to be personal for good reason.
Scott Rae: Greg, you also mentioned that goodness is one of our deepest desires. How do you know that people want to be good?
Greg Ganssle: Well, you eavesdrop on them. That's how you know. You kind of listen in on conversations, and nobody ever says, "Oh but I don't want to be good." Everybody always interprets, every person interprets his own behavior in a way that makes it good.
Scott Rae: Whether it is or not.
Greg Ganssle: Right. So suppose you overhear a conversation, and someone said, "Hey you told a lie to your roommate." The other person will never say, "Oh yes, but I don't care about being good." The other person is going to give some excuse. "Sure, I told a lie, but it was justified for these reasons." We're very keen on goodness. We think it's important. Everybody is the hero of his own story, and we're deeply committed to our opinion of ourselves as good people.
Greg Ganssle: And we just learn this by observing human behavior without thinking about our theories. You just observe human behavior, and we that people are oriented towards goodness.
Scott Rae: You say, in your chapter on goodness, that goodness is actually good for us. How is that so?
Greg Ganssle: Okay. Goodness is good for us because it's connected to our nature. God made us with a particular nature, and we flourish if we live into our nature, and that includes our relationships with one another. The reason I emphasize this in the book is that a lot of people have the idea that morality is kind of a stick that people hit us with, and it constrains our freedom. And in the book, I discuss Nietzsche's genealogy of morality, where he talks about this. That traditional morality is a matter of resentment, and in order to be free, we have to break out of this.
Greg Ganssle: But what's interesting is if we ask people, "What kind of relationships do you want in life?" The list of qualities they will tell us is precisely what morality is about. They'll say, "I want relationships based on trust, and knowledge, and love, and care, and patience." Nobody says, like, "I really long to be in manipulative relationships, where I'm being taken advantage of," because we know that we flourish in, what we would call a healthy, strong, honest, love relationships with other people.
Greg Ganssle: And that's evidence that, what we might call traditional morality really is the kind of life that we want.
Scott Rae: This is really insightful stuff, to see goodness, not in abstraction, or at the theoretical level, but to see it, especially in conjunction with the kinds of relationships that we all want and desire. Now you also say that we desire goodness, but we don't want somebody else telling us that we have to be good. Is this the reason we tend to react against moral criticism or self evaluation or things like that?
Greg Ganssle: Yes. I think it's true, and this is part of the way human beings are conflicted is we especially don't like moral evaluation. I want to be good, but I don't want anyone to tell me what to do to be good. Because I have this drive for my own self interest, and the moral light involves a conflict between these drives. Between what does it mean to inhabit the world virtuously and what does it mean to be self interested? And we all have this self interest, right? The Christian theologians call that the sin nature, the propensity to put our own self interest above the interest of others.
Greg Ganssle: So we're resistant to this kind of evaluation, but deep down, we want to be good people. And I think what we're resistant of most of all is other people telling us what it means to be good. If we thought somebody really knew, there's a person that knows what it means to be a good human being, and we believe they really knew this, we wouldn't be resistant. We would say, "Tell me what it means to be a good human being."
Greg Ganssle: But when we feel like someone's telling us what to do, we have this suspicion that they really don't know, and that's why we don't want to listen because they're just giving us their own agenda.
Sean McDowell: Greg, in one of my favorite talks, I explain what truth is, why it's important, and make a distinction for audiences between subjective truth that are preferences, and objective truths that are facts of the world that we actually live in. Now, when I ask people questions about morality, somewhere between 50, sometimes as high as 90% will say that morality is subjective or relative. Now, I don't think they really believe that, but that's the gut instinct response.
Sean McDowell: When I make a claim about beauty, it's almost always universal. But people say, "Well, beauty is in the eye of the beholder," and people have such a hard time believing that there's such a thing subjective beauty in the world. You have a chapter in here saying that people really want beauty. How do you reconcile those and make sense of at least, in my experience, there seems to be a tension?
Greg Ganssle: Well, I think there is a tension in people's minds. And it's hard to have an abstract defense, I think, of the objective nature of beauty. And so what I do in the book, is I reflect on a few scenarios, and the one that's persuasive to me, is if I go into the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, and I'm standing in front of a Van Gogh, and the tour guide is explaining the picture and says, "This is really beautiful," and I say, "I don't think it's beautiful. I don't see it." I don't conclude that there's something wrong with her. There's something wrong with me.
Greg Ganssle: There's a failure on my part not to see the beauty of the painting, or not to see the beauty of the Grand Canyon. And that helps me think that if it's possible to fail to see beauty that's there, then there really is beauty, and it is not just my opinion. We don't decide this is a beautiful painting by a vote. And yet, there is this, I'm sympathetic with people who think that beauty is in the eye of the beholder because our encounter with beauty does involve a subjective response to something that's there. And the response, I think people confuse that with the beauty itself.
Greg Ganssle: I mean, when we see something that's arresting because it's beautiful, it does call for a response, and we just stop, and we look, or we close our eyes and we listen. Or we are reading a book and we read the sentence over again slowly because it's just so, it forces our attention. So there is a subjective response here. But what elicits this response is something real and objective in the work of art, or in the work of nature.
Sean McDowell: So is it fair to say that someone who says two plus two equals five, is just as wrong as somebody who doesn't recognize the beauty in a rose or a waterfall?
Greg Ganssle: Yes, I think so. Now, it's just as wrong, but it's also more understandable. It takes very little training to know that two plus two equals four. Whereas, it takes paying attention and a little reflection to see beauty. So the fact that it's harder to see makes it more understandable that some people won't see it. And in addition, people have been taught their whole life that basic arithmetic is objective, and that beauty is subjective. So it takes a lot for people to get over that.
Sean McDowell: Let me take a step back and make sure that I'm tracking with the big picture of what you're doing here. I use an illustration sometimes for people, where if you take a beach ball and you push it underwater, it's gonna pop up to the surface because that's it's nature. And other worldviews will kind of suppress certain truths that we know, but the truth is gonna kind of seep to the surface because of the kind of thing that it is. It seems like you're saying if we just help people understand deep intuitions that they have and they really believe about morality, about the value of persons, about the value of beauty, they would see that the Christian worldview matches their deepest desires. Is that, essentially the 30,000 foot view approach that you're taking here?
Greg Ganssle: That's exactly it. I think it takes that paying attention to our deepest desires, but it also takes looking at the Christian story with fresh eyes. Because a lot of people think they understand the Christian story, and they think it's a very simplistic thing, is very moralistic in the way that it's kind of telling us what to do. It's been dressed up in ugly dressing for them. So we need both to pay closer attention to our intuitions about what's really important and what we really value, and what our aspirations are, but we need a fresh look at the Christian story. And I try to frame these things kind of in parallel, and ask really big global, theological questions about what brings freedom? Where does hope fit in? Where is beauty in the Christian narrative of God creating the universe?
Greg Ganssle: And looking at that narrative with fresh eyes allows us to see things that most people in our culture don't pay attention to, because they don't reflect on the resources of the Christian story in this way.
Scott Rae: Greg, let me shift gears a bit. We've talked about goodness and beauty. And you also highlighted in the book that the pursuit of truth is one of our deepest desires, yet that's a pretty counter cultural idea today to the postmodern worldview that I think's pretty deeply entrenched in our culture. The postmodernists, I think, would insist that you're really talking about power and not truth. And to say the pursuit of truth is one of our deepest desires, you're just kidding yourself if that's the case. How do you know that people pursue truth as one of their deepest desires? And how would you respond to the postmodernists and their skepticism about truth?
Greg Ganssle: Yes. I mean, that's a good question. I mean, the reason I talk about truth in the section on freedom. So I had the section on persons, goodness, beauty, and freedom. I was thinking about having a section on truth, but because of all the things you say in our culture, people are very suspicious of truth. And that I try to do, connecting freedom with truth is to say in order to be free, I take off from Jesus' statement that the truth will set you free, and ask the question, what is this about? Why would we think truth and personal freedom, human flourishing are connected? And there are a few very easy first steps to begin to think about this, and that is if I'm going to flourish as a human being, I have to be oriented towards reality. And this is the area where I think people really value truth. When we use a phrase like seeking the truth, a lot of times, I think people think we're talking about coming up with some theory about reality. And people are, in the postmodern influence in our culture emphasizes this, that people are suspicious of theories.
Greg Ganssle: But when it comes down to what kind of person I'm going to be, it's pretty easy to see that if I'm going to flourish, I have to have some sense of what's true about human beings. Are we flourish in certain kinds of relationships, and other kinds of relationships are detrimental. We have to be, in a sense, reality oriented. We have to be able to diagnose correctly what the problem is.
Greg Ganssle: So even the postmodern is truth oriented because he's the one who's saying, "Look, if you're making truth claims," you're thinking of Foucault here, probably, "Any attempt to make truth claims is really a power gain."
Greg Ganssle: Well, he's just made a diagnosis and it's important to him that it's true. So even the postmodern influence people who are trying to resist truth talk often do so because they think truth talk leads to something bad, but that whole project requires an orientation towards reality. Does it really lead to something bad? Or does it have to? Does it always? Even if it might sometimes.
Scott Rae: At the least.
Greg Ganssle: I felt that makes sense.
Scott Rae: At the least, they tend to get pretty annoyed when they're misunderstood.
Greg Ganssle: Yes. Exactly. Right. If they're misunderstood, and it is a deep human desire to be understood. And so when I talk about truth there, I'm not just talking about coming up with theories, although that's part of the human quest, I think. But it's being oriented towards reality, which is a truth orientation.
Scott Rae: Greg, this is, I've gotten to know you as a faculty colleague over the last few year, and I just love this approach that you're taking in this book. I would so encourage our listeners to grab a hold of your book, Your Deepest Desires. How would you suggest that people use this approach that you've taken in the book, articulating their own faith today?
Greg Ganssle: Well, that's a great question. There are several things. I mean, I wrote the book for non Christians. I knew Christians would read it, but I was trying to think of something you could give to a secular professor as a conversation starter. And so I frame everything around how can we begin a conversation with this. And I think the notion of conversation starting, rather than ending a conversation is the first step in an approach.
Greg Ganssle: The second thing that could be helpful for people is to, as they read the book and think about it, is to realize that, if you're a Christian believer, you are in the same boat as the atheists because our aspirations are mostly the same. And it's a much healthier, and more fun strategy, in a sense, to be in the same boat with people, and to say, "Look, we share these concerns." And it's much less of an us versus them mentality.
Greg Ganssle: It's like, "Well, let's think about what it means to be human. Tell me what you think." And where does being human fit into reality? You have this view. You've told me you're a Buddhist or whatever it is. Where does being human fit into that? And I've got to figure out where being human fits into being a Christian. And we can use these as talking points. But we're in the same boat. So I think that's part of the strategy that I think can be really helpful.
Sean McDowell: Greg, thanks so much for coming on the podcast. This has been a wonderful conversation. I remember the day that I heard that you were coming to Talbot, I thought, "Oh this is so great. Someone who does top rate philosophy, but has a heart for really engaging culture, really having spiritual conversations, and making a difference for the gospel." That's the balance we really aim to have at Talbot, and Biola in particular.
Sean McDowell: I hope our listeners will pick up, you know I'm a huge fan of your book. One of the best features is it's only like 130 some pages, so it's a quick read.
Greg Ganssle: Yes. It's short.
Sean McDowell: But I think as people read it, there will be a lot of moments where lights will just turn on and it'll really practically shape the spiritual conversation they have. So thanks for coming on, and thanks for your work, Greg.
Greg Ganssle: Well, thanks so much both of you. I appreciate what you're doing.
Sean McDowell: This has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically: Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest, Greg Ganssle, and to find more episodes, go to Biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's Biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app, and share it with a friend. Thanks so much for listening, and remember, think biblically about everything.